Whilst British music has more than held its own on the world stage over the last fifty years or so, you have to admit that the range and breadth of British regional accents isn’t always represented in people’s singing voices. After all, can you name any haunting ballads of undying love performed in a rich Brummie brogue? Or a Rage Against the Machine style song of political rage chanted in a Cardiff accent? Do you think Amy Winehouse would have enjoyed such global success if she sang like a London cabbie’s daughter, or would Joss Stone have charmed the States if instead of her faux-soul gruntings she’d used the accent of her native Devon and sung like she was the lost fourth member of the Wurzels?
Sadly, we will never know. The X-Factorisation of modern music has played its part in convincing most youngsters that the only route to success is to adopt an American or at least mid-Atlantic singing voice; Leona Lewis may have topped the US charts but is that really a victory for British music when she did so by sounding as American as possible? And whilst I’ve done a very good job of avoiding ever hearing a Cheryl Cole song, I’m pretty sure her whole down to earth Geordie lass schtick disappears the moment she has a microphone plonked in front of her.
For some reason the problem seems to be particularly acute in Birmingham as, despite all the music talent that’s emerged from the city, I can’t think of any of its chart exports who’ve used the accent in song. Instead they go off in all sorts of directions. You have the fake US accents of Beverley Knight or Jamelia (which always sounds odd when they sing a song in broad American but between each song say things like ‘Did ya loike that one? Grite, I’ll do anootha!’). Or, strangest of all, UB40, whose lead singer Ali Campbell is a Brummie of Scottish heritage so his singing voice will obviously be… Cod-Jamaican, of course.
Yes, it’s fair to say that Britain has never been shy of producing vocalists who have nothing of themselves in their singing voices, but just how many artists are there from these shores who proudly use their natural speaking voice as their singing voice and who didn’t cave in to pressure to create a more US-friendly sound? Well, here are seven of the best…
To be fair, you’d probably struggle to sing about Plaistow Patricia or being a ticket man at Fulham Broadway station if you’d done it in a faux-Texan twang. But in the last few years we’ve had a fair few rappers performing in London accents about London life, like Dizzee Rascal, so does that make Ian Dury the unsung father of Grime?!
Before the Arctic Monkeys the biggest band to come out of Sheffield was surely Def Leppard, and much as I love their brand of fist pumping hair metal, you’d hardly know they were from South Yorkshire from their MTV friendly singing voices. But Alex Turner and his cohorts have done decent business stateside without compromising their accents, even if I have my suspicion that there are bewildered fans listening to their records in New Jersey or somewhere going ‘Dem Limeys ain’t makin’ no sense, I tells ya! Whadda they talkin’ about?!
I don’t think it’s ever been cool to be posh in the world of pop, hence Damon Albarn adopting his ‘Wahey!-apples and pears!-I’m a cockney!’ persona during the Britpop era, so Nick Drake deserves double recognition here because not only are his vocals unmistakeably English, he made no effort to hide a voice shaped by an expensive public school education. Like his music, Drake’s voice made no concession to America, instead combining pastoral folk and classical influences to create something that was English through and through.
You’d struggle to hear any traces of Scottishness in the singing voices of, say, Sharleen Spiteri of Texas or Simple Minds’ Jim Kerr, but that’s not an accusation you could level at Leith’s most famous sons. Singing in broad Scottish brogues will surely alienate listeners around the world, right? Well, topping the Australian charts and coming damn close in the US with ‘I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles)’ would suggest not… And they’ve been covered by both Alvin and the Chipmunks and Homer Simpson. So double respect to them.
So, you’ve moved to New York and found yourself in an uber-cool art rock band patronised by Andy Warhol. You affect a US drawl to fit in, right? Not if you’re John Cale. You keep your Welsh tones (still strong after nearly fifty years in the US) and even use it to provide narration to ‘The Gift’, a song off the second Velvets album, about a girl who inadvertently saws into an admirer’s head.
Punk was supposedly about using your own voice rather than copying the American arena rock style of the ‘70s, but in practice that just meant that a cockneyfied singing voice quickly became the standard punk vocal style, the best example being Joe Strummer’s attempts to hide his public school roots. (True, John Lydon sounds London but he’s a bit whiney and, anyway, he’s always either lecturing us about abortion or trying to sell us butter.) But then there was Killing Joke, a unique band whose antics included throwing offal around the offices of magazines who’d given them bad reviews and moving to Iceland because they thought the end of the world was imminent. Their singer, Jaz Coleman, mixed the power of ‘70s rock vocalists with the anger of punk and sounded not only British but like the voice of the apocalypse. Regardless of whether or not it ever arrived.
It’s the rapping and spoken word sections that generally trip up British vocalists. If you sing in mid-Atlantic, which side of the pond do you rap from? Even groups with zero hope of cracking the US market seem to have it ingrained in them that a fake US twang is a prerequisite, most excruciatingly in that Atomic Kitten song with the spoken word bit in the middle. (Still, I suppose if they’d done it in Scouse it would have sounded like two drunken girls threatening each other at chucking out time at a Liverpool nightclub). Or do you remember George Michael’s attempts on Wham Rap?!? But anyone who thinks the US market has no interest in British sounds or scenarios should probably remember West End Girls by the Pet Shop Boys. A massive flop due to cultural indifference? No, a Billboard number one.